On Saturday morning, we headed again to the King’s Cross library for the already-familiar job application routine. After an hour or two of staring glazed at Gumtree ads and bitching about the job situation with a French chap in the same boat, my phone rang, and a man with an incredibly deep, gravelly voice enquired as to whether I was “interested in roadhouse work, yeah? You’ve got a friend too, right?” Various remote but lucrative outback motel gigs had been among the jobs we’d applied for the previous afternoon.
I said yes, most definitely; he said I should come up to Palm Beach to see him. “It’s a nice trip anyway, worth doing.” This sounded a bit weird to us – why is an outback roadhouse interviewing in a posh outer suburb of Sydney? – but our current job outlook made this a bit of a beggars-choosers situation, and it did sound like a nice trip. After some searching we boarded an L90 bus, which for less than five dollars each took us over the harbour bridge, through Manly (the most amusingly named suburb in the world) and Dee Why (the least imaginatively named suburb in the world), to the lovely Palm Beach. I rang the number again, and that rock-gargling voice told me that he’d “send a bloke called Jonas … sorry, Andreas, to pick you up.”
This again struck us as very strange – what sort of operation were we dealing with? Did they have a stable of German flunkeys? – but we sat on a bench overlooking the beautiful Palm Beach for a while before Andreas, a young blonde lad, appeared and, with a “You’re here for James? I’ll take you to him”, showed us to a rather nice car also containing a bony young chap with a split lower lip. He drove us for five minutes on a winding road through incredibly affluent suburbia while I asked him what exactly this job interview was – he explained that he was part of some sort of group giving backpackers jobs on outback farms and motels, which hadn’t been mentioned on the Gumtree ad.
We arrived at a secluded café overlooking Whale Beach, at which point our day turned from feeling slightly not-quite-right to full-on gangster drama. With a smile and an “after you” Andreas ushered us into the cafe, where the owner of the deep voice sat. He looked like a no-shit kingpin, a huge, meaty man in a muu-muu at the head of a big wooden table, and when he passed us his gold pen to write our names and addresses, it was heavy enough to be actual gold. Various young European backpacker minions – there was no other word for how they acted towards him – took various orders from him; the split-lip lad was asked “did you talk to Susan about it?” and dismissed, and Andreas was sent to chauffeur still more European names around.
The Big Man, totally businesslike, asked us a few questions about our relevant experience and aptitude for the jobs, whether we were good at cooking and cleaning, what sort of salaries we were expecting; then, quite unexpectedly, he started grilling us on our degree subjects in a surprisingly well-informed way. He was effortlessly commanding, clearly well-read and, in retrospect, totally terrifying, though at the time I was just thinking how interesting and unexpected this all was.
“War Studies? What did you specialise in?”
“Thirty Years War, Vietnam War, warfare at sea post-1588.”
“And what do you think of the Thirty Years War that wasn’t really thirty years at all?”
“I think the effect of the ‘Westphalian settlement’ is highly overstated; it wasn’t all subsequently small professional armies in nice, civilised, low-collateral warfare, especially if you look towards the Ottoman-Habsburg front, which was much more state-on-state indiscriminate destruction-”
“And on the subject of indiscriminate destruction, what do you think of chemical weapons Agent Orange? Napalm?”
“Hah, Agent Orange isn’t even technically a weapon-“
“Do you think it’s civilised to poison people from the sky or set them alight so they crawl on their bellies, burning, begging for mercy?”
“Do you think it’s civilised to shoot a piece of copper-jacketed lead into a man so fast that it explodes into sharp fragments that tear his insides apart? Are we pretending here that there’s a nice way to make war?” (I’ve been arguing about this lately anyway, so I had all my lines prepped.)
“Why do you think Athens won the Peloponnesian War?”
“Well, really what I studied was ancient Greek art. Not really big on wars. Ask me about statues and things.”
“Who do you prefer, Cleon or Aristophanes?”
“Oh, I don’t know!”
Finally, seemingly satisfied with our knowledge of ancient Greece and various warry topics, he suggested peremptorily that we would love the walk up to the lighthouse at the end of Palm Beach, that it was a real treat, that it’s where they film Home and Away doncha know, and took us to his car to drive us a little way towards it. On the way, he pointed out a house where backpackers working for his organisation were apparently kept, and cafes where they worked. I asked whether he was in this sort of business for income or fun, and whether they got a cut from the people who ended up employing backpackers; he said for fun, dissembled a bit on a different subject, and then said that the amount depended on “how much they earn, how much they like the jobs”, which seemed to be hinting that we were expected to be paying him for finding jobs.
Caroline’s shoes were totally inadequate for the walk up to the lighthouse, so I went ahead on my own with a pair of friendly Aussies; it was much steeper than it looked, and everything else that day had been so surreal I half wondered if this was an initiation ritual, and the Pin was watching me through a long lens from his hillside palace, or that Andreas would be leaning out of a helicopter when I got there, offering me a cigar and welcoming me to the Fraternity. But there was nothing except a fairly small, nicely made stone lighthouse, some glorious views of the coast to the north, and a selection of New South Wales wildlife – some little millipedes, a sort of turkey-looking thing, a bird that one of the Aussies identified as a magpie when she saw me looking at it (but isn’t at all like British magpies; it just looked like a jackdaw with white bits to me.) On the descent, I saw a bulldog ant, and as I brought my phone camera down to take a picture she assumed a fighting stance, mandibles flaring – as well as being huge, terrifying and (for ants) lethal, their vision is superb. The sunset as I walked back was utterly gorgeous.
“We are not working for that man.”
“Look, we don’t have any options at the moment, and I’m not going to rule him out just because that felt EXACTLY like a scene from a gangster movie-”
“Do you even listen to the things that come out of your mouth?”